The silver Tantalus Bowl found in Vinkovci, Croatia in 2012. Source: ©Damir Doracic, Archaeological Museum Zagreb

Practical Joke or Practicing Restraint? The Drinking Vessel That Turned Greedy Guests into Wet Blankets

(Read the article on one page)

A 4th century silver Roman bowl may be one of the earliest known examples of a practical joke. It looks like a regular drinking vessel at first, but the unsuspecting wine reveler who was given this object at a party would have received a less than pleasant surprise.

The Roman artifact was unearthed in Vinkovci, Croatia in 2012, but Daily Mail reports that the true use of the bowl wasn’t deciphered until it was examined by British Museum archaeologist Dr. Richard Hobbs. “This is the earliest example of a physical practical joke, certainly for the Romans,' Dr. Richard Hobbs, curator of Roman Britain at the British Museum, told Daily Mail .

Inquisitr reports that the silver bowl has a secret pipe placed within it which would begin draining any liquid poured in it if it reached a certain quantity.

It is possible that this specially designed vessel was for an altogether different purpose. Theodoros Karasavvas has reported for Ancient Origins that this type of artifact was invented by Pythagoras.

Known as the Pythagorean Cup, or Greedy Cup, this is purportedly one of Pythagoras’s lesser-known inventions. Unlike the practical joke intention attributed to the recently studied Roman Tantalus bowl, Karasavvas writes , “Local traditions in Samos say that he [Pythagoras] made the cup for drinking wine in moderation. Inside, there was a line that defined the maximum level of wine the cup could be filled with. A trickle above that line and the cup automatically emptied its contents from a hidden hole in its base.”

Cross section of a Pythagorean cup being filled: at B, the cup may be drunk from, but at C, the siphon effect causes the cup to drain.

Cross section of a Pythagorean cup being filled: at B, the cup may be drunk from, but at C, the siphon effect causes the cup to drain. ( Nevit Dilmen / CC BY SA 3.0 )

“You can imagine this being passed to an unsuspecting dinner party guest who likes their drink and them holding it and telling a slave to fill it up with wine, and at some point it pouring all over them,” Dr. Hobbs, told  The Times .

The Roman Tantalus bowl has another tongue-in-cheek feature – the appearance of Tantalus. Like the person who attempted to drink from the vessel, Tantalus was unable to quench his thirst. In Tantalus’ case his thirst was the punishment of the gods for his misconduct in Olympus. They decided Tantalus should always be left wanting when he reached for the fruit above his head or the water which appeared deceivingly close to his feet, but would drain away when he tried to drink it.

‘Tantalus and Sisyphus in Hades’ (ca. 1850), a wall painting (now destroyed) in the Niobidensaal of the Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany.

‘Tantalus and Sisyphus in Hades’ (ca. 1850), a wall painting (now destroyed) in the Niobidensaal of the Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany. ( Public Domain )

As an interesting twist to the story, Dr. Hobbs believes that the jokesters who owned the Tantalus bowl may have actually been Roman emperors. Specifically, he named Valentinian I and his brother Valens as the possible tricksters because they were born in Vinkovci, where the silver bowl was found.

The original Roman Tantalus bowl is in Zagreb, so Dr. Hobbs aims to create a replica with which he can perform further tests and analysis.

Cut-through illustration of a Pythagorean cup.

Cut-through illustration of a Pythagorean cup. ( Fair Use )

It has been suggested that the Roman joke book Philogelos – translated as Laughter Lover according to historian Mary Beard – is one of our best sources for what constituted humor in ancient Rome. However, Reuters reports the oldest known recorded joke comes from 1900 BC. It is a Sumerian saying: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

Although it sounds a little strange in comparison to today’s jokes, the essence of the Sumerian saying may actually be quite similar to modern humor. As Dr. Paul McDonald, lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, points out :

“Jokes have varied over the years, with some taking the question and answer format while others are witty proverbs or riddles. What they all share however, is a willingness to deal with taboos and a degree of rebellion. Modern puns, Essex girl jokes and toilet humour can all be traced back to the very earliest jokes […]”

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article